As people grow older, they can benefit from monitoring diet, exercise,… (Neil Webb/For The Washington…)
People have a wide variety of wish lists for improving their health, but we all share one goal: Everyone wants to age well.
Of course, aging is somewhat unfair, because a few lucky people will breeze easily through eight or nine decades without even trying — due to their good genes — while the rest of us have to put in some effort just to get that far.
But not necessarily a lot of effort. Aging well — or, at least, aging better — doesn’t have to be that hard. After talking to many aging experts and looking at the latest findings on aging from around the world, it’s clear that people can improve the way they will age.
To start with, you need to know what makes you age, and that means you have to pay attention to what happens inside your cells, where aging begins. Scientists are finding that most of the cellular processes that cause the body to gradually decline with age are affected by diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress and other outside influences.
For example, the food you eat influences the production of harmful free radicals during metabolism. These are unstable, unpaired electrons that cause tremendous damage as they flail around inside your cells. Although research on this subject is far from complete, damage from free radicals (called oxidative stress) is widely considered one of many factors that cause cells to age and malfunction in various ways.
Scientists have also discovered the role of telomeres in aging (See “Field of Inquiry” on Page E4.) These are caps on the ends of strands of DNA that protect a cell’s genetic material when it divides. But they get a little shorter with each division, and once they get too short, a cell can no longer function normally. Older people have shorter telomeres, but so do people with high stress and poor sleep habits.
So, your lifestyle can affect the microscopic processes going on in your cells day in and day out. But scientists are also finding that even small amounts of healthful behavior can retard these processes so that you age more slowly.
To eat more healthfully, for example, “one bite is better than none,” explained Bahram Arjmandi, chair of the department of nutrition, food and exercise sciences at Florida State University, who has extensively studied the anti-aging properties of numerous foods. His research has documented notable benefits from daily consumption of apples (cholesterol), prunes (bone density) and watermelon (blood pressure).
But you have to keep it up. It’s a little like keeping your house clean: Better to pick up a little bit each day than to let it go for weeks and have to tackle a huge mess all at once.
So the message from science is that you don’t have to go all out with a major new fitness regime or diet to make a difference in how long you’ll live or how healthy you’ll be.
Knowing that even a little effort can have a big impact, here are six simple things you can do to improve your odds of healthy aging:
Bake, don’t broil
Foods cooked with high heat develop toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, that accelerate aging. AGEs generate huge numbers of free radicals that build up in your blood and tissue, activating the immune system and causing chronic inflammation. And they contribute to hardening of the arteries, stiff joints, wrinkles and more, according to Helen Vlassara, director of the Diabetes and Aging Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Vlassara has studied AGEs for more than 30 years and published numerous peer-reviewed studies linking them to chronic health conditions and symptoms of aging.
AGEs are found in high quantities in processed foods such as American cheese, fast food and dark colas, in part because they are manufactured using high heat. Try substituting alternatives such as low-fat cheese, dried fruit, fruit juice and air-popped popcorn. Also, cook your food at lower temperatures: A fried egg has 10 times the AGEs of a scrambled egg, for example, and a steak has 10 times more AGEs than beef stew.
Skip a meal
Scientists have long been seduced by studies that have shown a rodent’s life can be dramatically extended by cutting its food consumption by about 30 percent. Major studies on monkeys have not shown an increase in longevity by severely cutting calories, but other research, such as a study published in the Journal Nature in August, has demonstrated that adopting a low-calorie diet does improve the health of aging primates.